In an article in New York magazine, a man operating a small business in New York City made this startlingly honest confession:
I hate to say it, but there’s no way I’m hiring a black guy to work for me.
Is this a good indication of how racism still significantly affects our society and continues to create artificial barriers to success for minorities? Absolutely, but not in the way you think. The business owner who made that statement isn’t a racist at all. He runs one of New York’s marijuana delivery services, and he knows that if he hires a black man to be a delivery person, that person is significantly more likely to get arrested on his route. He then tells reporter Mark Jacobson:
Fact is, pot is legal for white people but not for black people, which is total bullshit.
Recent arrest statistics compiled by Queens College Professor Harry Levine back up this observation:
In this way, the NYPD has arrested tens of thousands of New Yorkers every year for possessing small amounts of marijuana. These arrests are expensive, costing nearly $90 million a year. And there are other costs: an arrest record can result in severe collateral consequences, like loss of employment, or the chance at a college scholarship. Spending the night in one of the City’s overcrowded holding pens or in Riker’s can itself be traumatic.
The most alarming component of these arrests, however, are the racial disparities. Nearly 90% of all those arrested for possession of marijuana are Black and Latino. Whites comprise 35% of the City population, but make up less than 10% of all those arrested for possession of marijuana. These disparities are not indicators of who uses marijuana–over 1/3 of all adults U.S. have tried marijuana, and anyone on a casual weekend stroll through the Upper West Side or Prospect Park will find a number of white people puffing away.
As Gabriel Sayegh also points out in that same post, the number of arrests for low-level marijuana possession have risen from 900 in 1993 to 40,000 in 2008. With nearly 90% of those arrests being of minorities (and most of them young), those arrests tend to erase the kinds of opportunities that would otherwise be available. This trend hasn’t just been with marijuana either. All forms of drug enforcement – especially the long disparity between crack and cocaine sentencing guidelines – have created a gigantic divide between how the drug war affects white communities and how it affects minority communities.
It’s become fashionable to claim that racism in America is largely over and that the folks who claim it isn’t are attempting to exploit the gullible. The numbers from America’s drug war emphasize how false that belief is. Wherever one goes in America, the racial disparity in drug arrests is only becoming more extreme. In California, blacks are only 7% of the population, but make up 33% of marijuana felony arrests. There are six times as many whites and blacks in the state, but more black men are picked up for marijuana felony offenses than whites, even though whites and blacks use marijuana in equal percentages and there are six times as many whites in the state. From coast to coast this occurs, giving us a massive disparity in our prison population and creating a huge wealth gap between white and minority communities.
What’s interesting to note about this phenomenon is that throughout the criminal justice system, from prosecutors to police officers to judges, the individuals within the system will be adamant that they’re not racists themselves. And I think most of them are telling the truth. The system itself really isn’t the root of the racism. The racism tends to come from what the community expects of this system and pushes politicians to do with it. When it’s understood that way, as the manifestation of lingering American eliminationism, the results we have start to make more sense.
A perfect illustration of this phenomenon occurred a few years back in an exchange I had with a blog commenter from the Bay Area. She first left a comment agreeing with me that marijuana prohibition is stupid and that people shouldn’t be arrested for using it. Then, when I mentioned the racial disparity, her attitude changed. She became defensive of law enforcement and falsely claimed that blacks get arrested because they commit more drug crimes (they don’t). Finally, I posted a video of an old episode of COPS, where several black men where being tackled and arrested after buying small bags of weed from an informant. She quickly went from being against marijuana prohibition to expressing gratitude to the police for getting these dangerous people off the streets. To this day, I guarantee you that she doesn’t think of herself as a racist, and if you ever accused her of it, she’d flip out just as she did in the comments of that post.
This is the difficulty in understanding the real level of racism that infects our political debates today, and more specifically, the extent to which racism drives the “teabagger” movement. I sympathize with genuine small government conservatives who have been consistent in their opposition to both Republicans and Democrats. But I also get the sense that they don’t recognize how miniscule they are within the ranks of those who are waving tea bags and calling Obama a Communist.
On the other hand, I think Jimmy Carter is wrong when he says that the reason for such heated opposition is because Obama is black. It’s not simply because Obama is black (one could easily see the same protests if Hillary Clinton was President), it’s because Obama is a Democrat, and the Democrats are seen as the party that represents the interests of black America. The reason we’re seeing such an intense backlash to government spending all of a sudden is not because government is being more irresponsible with its spending than it was during the Bush era, it’s because the perception is that the money is being spent on the undesirables within our society, the same people who always seem to bear the brunt of our nation’s drug war.
As Glenn Greenwald points out in this post, it makes absolutely no sense to be more concerned about the tiny sums of money that we dish out to ACORN for the relatively minor scandal that they’ve been caught up in after years of being disinterested in the vast sums of money that we’ve given to war profiteers like Blackwater, or various war-crime-committing nations, or to the financial services companies that drove our economy into the ground. The only explanation is that ACORN is representative of black America, and therefore is seen as a threat disproportionate to their actual influence. But don’t dare call that phenomenon racist.